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2016 Cadillac ATS Pros and Cons: Why (Not) This Car?

Cadillac ATS-V front quarter view Hell
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Introduction

Sometimes auto writers opt not to write up a car they've tested because their grandma taught them that, if they don't have something nice to say, then they shouldn't say anything at all. I've done the opposite with the Cadillac ATS. Though this car is among my current favorites, I reviewed it for the first and (until now) last time back in October 2012. What's been going on?

I've been enthusiastic about the Cadillac ATS since I first learned it was going to be a thing. I prefer my cars compact, light, and rear-wheel-drive, since such cars tend to be the most fun along a curvy road. A compact, light, and rear-wheel-drive Cadillac designed to out-BMW BMW? This sounded great to me. (A less expensive variant would have sounded even better, but one planned for Pontiac died when that brand did.)

I don't usually ask to attend out-of-town media events, as I don't have the time for them. But I asked to be included on this one, and Cadillac followed through with an invitation. I flew to Atlanta, drove the new ATS in various forms, on both winding roads and a track, and wrote it up.

Taking place on unfamiliar roads with no other cars for comparison, such events rarely provide the ideal basis for a review. They aren't supposed to. People attending these events later get the car for a week, and then write a more thorough review.

I had a 2014 ATS 2.0T for a week in June 2014. My driving included both the roads I'm most familiar with (and on which I've driven the car's competitors) and some of my favorite roads anywhere. Then, in September 2015, I had a 2016 ATS-V coupe for two driving-filled days. I should have immediately written up both cars, yet I didn't.

Why not? I wanted to do an especially good job reviewing the ATS because it deserves to sell far better than it has been (not well). In developing the car, Cadillac focused on the things car enthusiasts claim to care the most about, only to have the car magazines favor more well-rounded competitors that, though less fun to drive, have roomier back seats and larger trunks. It's just not fair! However, somehow I never felt up to the task, and opted to cover a different car, week after week, month after month.

This has gotten ridiculous. Time to do what has needed to be done.

ATS Reviews: Cadillac ATS-V front quarter view Hell

Definitely not Hell. A good angle for the ATS-V coupe. more ATS photos

ATS Reviews: Cadillac ATS-V interior

I find the ATS's interior attractive, but impressions vary widely. Too busy?

Tested: 2016 Cadillac ATS

2dr Coupe turbocharged 464hp 3.6L V6 6-speed manual RWD

Compared: 2016 BMW 4-Series

2dr Hardtop conv. turbocharged 425hp 3.0L I6 7-speed automated manual RWD

Why the 2016 Cadillac ATS?

  Compared to the 4-Series
Handling
Handling: Much better Better Worse

My original evaluation of the ATS's handling read much like this:

In developing the ATS, Cadillac focused heavily on what had been BMW's key strength, handling. They made the car compact and light, and prioritized handling. It shows. Especially now that BMW has broadened its focus (such that it no longer has one), the ATS is the best-handling car in the class. Hustled through a series of curves, it feels agile, balanced, and composed, with precise steering via either wheel or throttle. Body motions are better controlled than in the current 3-Series.

Later, I had a 2014 ATS 2.0T for a week at home. Quite often cars that are fun on a challenging road or on a track feel like they're half-asleep in typical daily driving. Not this ATS. Even in casual around-town driving I found its steering and suspension much more responsive than those of competitors, and consequently enjoyed driving it more. GM has a way of tuning its rear-wheel-drive cars such that they seem to rotate directly beneath your seat, and convey nuanced feedback through it, making them unusually intuitive to pilot through curves.

I then spent a long day driving that ATS from Detroit to the Ohio River and back, zig-zagging along some of the twistiest roads anywhere. The Cadillac's suspension skillfilly handled everything those roads could dish out. The steering that had a pleasant heft to it in town, though, felt overly light when really put to the test. Still precise and more communicative than most, and still more enjoyable than a BMW 3-Series would have been, but not ideal. My lighter, less insulated Mazda RX-8 feels more engaging on the same roads. The price of luxury?

Soon after that drive I learned that Cadillac was revising the steering of the ATS for 2015. I delayed writing up the 2014 until I could evaluate the 2015. A few months later I briefly drove a 2015 coupe, and its steering wheel did seem to weight up a little more as it was turned.

Last fall I was able to lap Road America a couple of times in the new-for-2016, weapons-grade ATS-V. Soon afterwards I had an ATS-V coupe for a couple of days. I couldn't drive this car to southeastern Ohio, but I was able to evaluate it on southeastern Michigan's curviest roads (not all that curvy).

With the ATS-V, a stiffened body structure, firmer suspension tuning, electronic limited-slip differential, and stickier tires significantly increase the capability of an already highly capable car. Compared to the regular ATS, the V can take then exit the same curve faster, and with such control that you'll feel like a better driver. A five-level "performance traction management" system effectively provides the desired amount of safety net without seeming intrusive. And the V is very fun to drive. But it also feels significantly less nimble than the ATS 2.0T, no doubt because it's over 400 lbs. heavier. As much as I enjoyed the ATS-V--more than a BMW M3 and much more than an Audi RS 5 or Lexus RC F--I actually prefer the more agile 2.0T for everyday driving.

I also cannot help but compare the ATS-V to the second-generation CTS-V that kept my adrenaline at flood stage for a week. Though considerably heavier than the ATS-V, and less capable on a track, that CTS-V was more raw, and was thus more exciting and engaging. I never felt as directly connected to or as deliriously excited by the ATS-V. Refinement comes at a cost.


Powertrain performance
Powertrain performance: About the same Better Worse

For the ATS-V, Cadillac developed a turbocharged 3.6-liter V6 that can churn out 464 horsepower and 445 lb-ft of torque. These figures, far above the already well beyond adequate 2.0T's 272 and 295, place the new engine between the turbocharged 3.0-liter inline six in the BMW M3 (425 hp, 406 lb-ft) and the turbocharged 4.0-liter V8 in the new Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG (503 hp, 516 lb-ft). In magazines' track testing the three cars all get from zero to 60 mph in a little under four seconds--they're all extremely quick. Over 60 mph the Cadillac starts pulling away from the other two. Perhaps because of the engine's relatively large displacement boost lag is all but absent. Acceleration feels like an effortless shove.

The Cadillac engine's weaknesses, to the extent it has them, are subjective. Much like that in the Audi S4 and S5, this boosted V6 doesn't sound or feel like anything special. A similarly powerful big V8, like the one used in the related, also new-for-2016 Chevrolet Camaro, would have sounded more thrilling. Quite a few people wish the ATS-V was powered by the V8 instead of the turbocharged V6.

For those willing to trade some agility and much additional cash for downright brutal acceleration, Cadillac recently introduced a new CTS-V with a 640-horsepower supercharged 6.2-liter V8.

One thing the CTS-V no longer offers: a manual transmission. The V8-powered Audi, Lexus, and Mercedes don't offer one, either. This leaves just the M3 and the ATS-V for fans of the third pedal.

As is generally the case in recent years, the Cadillac ATS-V isn't quite as quick with a six-speed manual transmission as it is with an eight-speed automatic. You give up a few tenths. But you get a much more thorough and direct connection with the car. The shifter snicks through short, solid, precise throws from gear to gear. The clutch doesn't provide as much feedback, and grabs near the top of a fairly long travel, but requires surprisingly little effort considering the amount of torque its managing. For downshifts you can select rev-matching--no need to blip the throttle yourself or rely entirely on the synchros. And during full-throttle acceleration you can keep your right foot planted while shifting--the power train computer will automatically manage the fuel flow while the clutch is depressed.

Yes, I'd get one with the manual.

In typical daily driving there's minimal need to work the transmission, as the engine is torquey and the transmission's gear ratios are tall. Boost hardly ever comes into play, as the engine is large enough to get by just fine without it. Unlike the second-generation CTS-V, but like most current competitors, the ATS-V does a fairly good impersonation of a transportation appliance in typical daily driving. Drive it casually, and your passengers will have no idea they're riding in a car with such tremendous potential.


ATS Reviews: Cadillac ATS-V coupe rear quarter

The coupe's long unadorned rear fenders require the large wheels of the ATS-V to properly fill them

ATS Reviews: Cadillac ATS-V instrument panel

Hardly anyone likes the CUE infotainment interface or the capacitive HVAC buttons.

Exterior styling
Exterior styling: About the same Better Worse

My initial review also listed driving position and styling among the reasons to buy a Cadillac ATS. The driving position hasn't changed in the sedan--it remains quite good--but you sit lower in the coupe I drove for this review. Also, in the coupe my right elbow didn't always get along with the cup holder cutout in the center armrest, and the armrest on the door was too high and too far away, even if I raised the seat higher than I normally would. So driving position's out.

Between that review and this one, Mercedes-Benz redesigned the C-Class, giving it easily the most stylish, best-trimmed interior in the class. The ATS's interior remains attractive, especially if you prefer lots of styling with your styling (Cadillac interiors combine many different materials, colors, and sundry details), but the instruments have never been attractive and another round or two of refinement of the whole shebang wouldn't hurt.

Even back in 2012 I was on the fence regarding the exterior styling of the ATS sedan. It remains athletically proportioned and, with its edgy visage and crisply creased body sides, more distinctive than most. But compared to earlier Cadillacs the ATS has been watered down. The coupe especially takes fewer chances than the CTS coupe it more-or-less replaced, and even looks a little plain through the rear quarters.

The larger wheels and tires of the ATS-V do take the exterior back up a notch, so I'll keep exterior styling among the reasons to buy, if barely and highly conditional on one's personal taste.


Why Not the 2016 Cadillac ATS?

  Compared to the 4-Series
Rear seat room & comfort
Rear seat room & comfort: Worse Better Worse

Unfortunately, the "why nots" from three years ago remain. The compact Cadillac sedan's rear seat hasn't gotten any larger, and the coupe's is even tighter. Meanwhile, Audi, Lexus, and Mercedes have introduced competitors with roomier rear seats. At 5-9 I can sit behind myself with a little room to spare in the ATS sedan, and virtually none to spare in the ATS coupe. Drivers who need the seat further back than I do will eliminate leg room for all but the shortest rear passengers.


Cargo capacity
Cargo capacity: Worse Better Worse

The Cadillac ATS's trunk similarly hasn't gotten any larger. When optimizing the ATS's rear suspension for handling, space efficiency was allowed to slide, such that the trunk can barely hold ten cubic feet, about as small as you'll find in a sedan and even on the low side for a coupe. The trunks in competitors range from somewhat to much larger.


ATS Reviews: Cadillac ATS-V front angle Hell

Many lines and shapes well-integrated.

ATS Reviews: Cadillac ATS-V coupe back seat

Even the ATS sedan's back seat is tight, so the coupe's...

Controls and instruments
Controls and instruments: Worse Better Worse

The instruments in the ATS are oddly styled and lack the upscale appearance of those in some competitors. The CUE touchscreen-based infotainment interface, though attractive (at least until it's smudged up), can be difficult to navigate. Plus both the touchscreen and the touch-sensitive controls below it can be slow to respond.


Quietness
Quietness: About the same Better Worse

Usually noise levels inside the Cadillac ATS-V were moderate, even low. At 40 mph the car can feel like it's going 20. But on some roads the Michelin Pilot Super Sports roared loudly. This is common with ultra-high-performance tires, just something to be aware of. The engine can also get pretty loud, especially in "track" mode. With some engines, this can be a plus, enhancing the driving experience. The roar of the ATS-V's big turbo V6 sounds somewhat synthetic. I didn't enjoy hearing it in my daily driving.


Other features of the 2016 Cadillac ATS

  Compared to the 4-Series
Ride smoothness
Ride smoothness: Better Better Worse

Aside from occasional tire roar, the Cadillac ATS-V rides more comofortably than any car with its handling capabilities has a right to. Sure, it's not a pillowy luxury sedan ride (though it can feel a touch floaty in "touring" mode). But it's not at all harsh, either, not even in "track" mode. Some credit is no doubt due the top-notch adaptive dampers, but GM has figured out how to tune a suspension very, very well. Even in non-AMG form the new Mercedes C-class has a thumpier ride--you can feel its tires bobbling their way across uneven pavement.


Front seat support & comfort
Front seat support & comfort: About the same Better Worse

The Cadillac ATS-V's optional Recaro front seats, with adjustable seat back and cushion bolsters, provide very good support in turns. The standard seats also have adjustable seat back bolsters, but much smaller ones. Anyone who'll be using even half of the ATS-V's potential will want to pony up $2,300 for the Recaros. Neither seat is especially comfortable, but here as well the Recaros have an edge.


Fuel economy
Fuel economy: About the same Better Worse

In one area the ATS-V is far superior to the second-generation CTS-V, and probably the new one as well: fuel economy. The V wagon guzzled fuel more voraciously than anything else I've tested. More often than not the trip computer average was in the single digits. In my suburban driving, the ATS-V's average sometimes broke into the 20s, but was usually around 18. Not good for the average car, but more than acceptable for one with 464 horsepower.

In EPA testing, the ATS-V managed 17 mpg city, 23 mpg highway with a manual transmission and 16/24 with an automatic. The BMW M3 did slightly better: 17/26 with a manual and 17/24 with an automatic. The automatic-only C63 S and RC F are in the same ballpark, with 18/25 and 16/25, respectively. When you consider that the Mercedes is also the most powerful car, its scores are the most impressive.

Oddly, the ATS 2.0T, with barely half as much engine, is less competitive in this area. Its EPA ratings--20/29 with a manual, 22/31 with an automatic--are well short of those for the BMW 328i (22/34, 23/35) and Mercedes-Benz C300 (N/A, 25/34).


Price or payments
Price or payments: Better Better Worse

So, how much is the additional performance of the V going to cost you? Compared to a well-optioned ATS 2.0T sedan, an ATS-V lists for about $18,000 more, $48,200 vs. $66,335. Add $2,300 to the latter for the Recaro seats nearly all of them leave the factory with. Want the coupe? Add another $2,170.

But wait, there's more! You really want to decrease your driving enjoyment by getting the V with an automatic transmission? Add $2,000. Want the carbon fiber aero kit? Add $5,000. (Yes, that's a big one.) A performance data and video recorder (quite neat) runs $1,300. A head-up display, $425. While you can get a well-equipped ATS-V with a sticker in the mid-60s, check all the boxes on the coupe and you'll end up in the mid-eighties.

To me, the ATS-V seems a much better value in the mid-60s.

As pricey as the Cadillac ATS-V might seem, it's still nearly $4,000 less than a comparably equipped BMW M3. Though I much prefer driving the Cadillac, badge-conscious people (much of the market for these cars) likely see the BMW roundel as easily worth $4,000 more than the Cadillac crest. Like the regular ATS, the ATS-V could be priced too close to the BMW for its own good.

On the other hand, those entirely focused on performance will find a much better value elsewhere in GM's product portfolio. The 2016 Chevrolet Camaro is based on the same architecture as the ATS, and in SS form is powered by a 455-horsepower 6.2-liter V8 that many people would like to see in the ATS-V. While the Camaro lacks the ATS-V's performance traction management, adaptive dampers, and electronically-controlled limited-slip differential, its performance potential should be similar, if not quite as easy to fully realize. And the Camaro SS's price is about $20,000 lower. If only it weren't so hard to see out of...



Conclusion

Yes, the Cadillac ATS-V, like the regular ATS, has a tight rear seat and trunk. Yes, its instrumentation could be classier and its infotainment interface could be more user-friendly. If you want a well-rounded car, buy something else. But if you want the luxury compact coupe or sedan that is the most fun to drive, the ATS-V is the one to get.

Don't need V levels of acceleration, or don't want to spend over $60,000? Then the regular ATS similarly engages and excites more than its direct competitors. In typical daily driving, owing to its significantly lower curb weight and consequently greater agility, the 2.0T can even be more fun to drive than the V.

I'm a big fan of the ATS in either form.

ATS Reviews: Cadillac ATS-V engine

Not the most impressively styled engine. But 464 horsepower.

ATS Reviews: Cadillac ATS-V coupe trunk

The ATS coupe's trunk is as roomy as the sedan's. They're both equally small.

See more 2016 Cadillac ATS photos

Cadillac provided a 2016 ATS-V for two days and, earlier, a 2014 ATS 2.0T for a week. BMW and Lexus provided cars at a regional media association event.

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2016 Cadillac ATS pros and cons, according to Michael Karesh: the best reasons for buying (or not buying) the 2016 Cadillac ATS. Join TrueDelta to post your own impressions.

Response from BDubya

3:22 pm January 31, 2016

My current DD is a 2013 ATS Premium RWD, 6MT. After 50,000 miles, I am happy to report zero problems and this is one of, if not THE BEST handling car I've ever owned. (I've had about 120 now, the latest being a paif of BMW 535 GTs, an A8, a Jaguar XF Supercharged and a Chrysler 300C). For only the second time in all this string of rides, I'll be replacing this with a new model of the same car. Your writeup is spot on, Mike--the "dislikes" are few . . . back seat room (not an issue for me), trunk space (also not an issue), mediocre gauge display (why not the one from the CTS???). CUE was a question for me at first, but other than the fingerprints I can say it works better than the last-gen Audi and BMW units. (Jaguar still wasn't close for my '09 model). I still think I'd rather have knobs and buttons, but now that I know how to use it, it's just fine. In the new one I'll be move from the perfectly adequate 2.0 turbo to the 3.6 NA motor, partially for smoothness and partially because Premium gas in my area is 60 centsa gallon higher than regular. Ouch. I did consider the ATS-V because it's an awesome ride, but really--I don't need the difference & in Northern Indiana our roads really don't lend themselves to everyday enjoyment. I will however, keep RWD and that wonderful magnetic ride suspension! Keep up the good work!

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Response from mkaresh

4:23 pm January 31, 2016

Happy to hear you got one of the good ones. Some other owners haven't been so lucky. The thing that would keep me from considering the 3.6 is that you can't get a manual with it. But if you're getting an automatic anyway, I'm sure you'll be happy with it.

What do you think of the revised front end? Different grille than on your 2013.

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Response from BDubya

10:11 pm January 31, 2016

Actually I like the new front end. The old one felt like an iteration of the last generation CTS design language, and now it's fresh and clean. The full width chrome bar makes it feel lower and wider and ties the whole front end together better.

As for the 3.6, I wouldn't consider a pre-16. The updated engine and transmission are meeting with near universal praise, and a nagging back issue is prompting the transition to AT. I'd be happy to find a 2.0T again, but the AT is for sure. I haven't found many with my option choices and most have been 3.6s.

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Response from mkaresh

11:01 am February 1, 2016

Of course, if there's no rush you can always order one and get exactly what you want.

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Response from zcd1

1:36 pm February 1, 2016

I have no doubt that the ATS-V drives wonderfully - I've seen nothing but praise for the ride/handling balance.

It's the packaging (and to a lesser degree the available power plants) that have seriously stunted the ATS in the market. Nailing all the "driving" points while swinging and missing at the packaging (and refinement) still results in a compromised car as far as most of the marketplace is concerned.

Yes, of course all cars are compromised to one degree or another. This part of the market appears to have spoken with regards to whether the ATS' particular blend of attributes is desireable, and the answer is mostly "No".

Given what GM has apparently learned about chassis tuning however, the German big 3 should be VERY afraid of the next generation of Cadillacs, which presumably won't include the compromised packaging and unrefined power plants...

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